An excerpt from “The King of Skid Row” by James Eli Shiffer.
The Sourdough Bar’s first customers of the day gathered on the sidewalk just before 8 a.m. Often twenty or twenty-five of them would queue up in the quiet of the morning, the previous night’s debauchery brought to mind only by a sour smell and broken glass in the gutter, a shoeless figure asleep in a doorway. Those who were upright formed a line of suffering on Washington Avenue, heads pounding, stomachs heaving, hands shaking, probably not talking much as they waited under the storefront’s colossal foaming beer glass and the immense 10, the never-changing price of a beer. In the driving snow or pissing rain, the morning ritual endured, and when the clock on city hall struck eight and the door swung open, the alcoholics shambled in. They were rewarded with the early bird special: a five-cent glass of muscatel, the kind of breakfast that took the edge off their pain and allowed them to begin another day on a journey down the boozy river to oblivion.
The five-cent policy was the brainchild of the proprietor, Johnny Rex. Even though he was in control of his urges and could stop after a drink or two, the sight of people with brutal hangovers always brought out his charitable side. He hated to see them so ill when he knew he had the means to relieve their agony, means that were more immediate and reliable than those of the Harvest Field Mission or the Minnesota State Employment Service just across the alley from the Sourdough’s back door. It wasn’t a bad business model, either, and Johnny was never one to look away from opportunity. When they’re sick, they’re sick, he reasoned, and he had the treatment. The other shopkeepers and bar owners on the block would complain about the morning sidewalk spectacle and the five-cent eye-openers, but they always complained because Johnny had figured out a way to underprice them and still make a profit. In his view, he was taking care of those guys. He didn’t jackroll them. He didn’t get them drunk and steal from them. He treated them like family, with that signature [John] Bacich generosity.
He got that from his father, the benevolent despot who reigned over his soused minions at the long-forgotten Palimar Bar of Oliver, Wisconsin. Take care of your customers, even as you get them hammered. Don’t just toss them in the gutter. Such was the peculiar psychology of Skid Row, where the barkeeps were the caretakers. “The bartender acts as a kind of guardian to many of his customers, seeing that they get home when they are drunk, protecting them from police and jackrollers, and sometimes extending them credit,” wrote sociologist Sam Wallace, who impersonated a Gateway drunk for his field research. Johnny Rex probably took it as far as anybody, owning the Skid Row trifecta of a liquor store, bar and flophouse, where he would comp anybody a drink because he knew they’d always be back.
This support network for heavy drinkers anguished those who were concerned about the city’s image, but it revealed something fundamental about the place. Minneapolis has always had a tortured relationship with the bottle. From its earliest days as a frontier boomtown built on timber and grain, its New England-born plutocrats alternately profited from and fretted over the city’s growing reputation as a place where lumberjacks, farmers and railroad workers could spend their cash on vices in short supply outstate.
As the city attracted legions of Scandinavians, they brought with them a fondness for brännvin, but also a culture of temperance. In 1884 the city drew a line around the downtown, a section of northeast Minneapolis and a few other places and said no drinks could be served outside those boundaries. Officially termed the Liquor Patrol Limits, the boundaries accomplished several things: They kept legal booze out of the civilized and rational grid of neighborhoods and streetcar suburbs to the south and north. They also ensured nearly a century of municipal corruption, in which control of liquor permits became a cash cow for gangsters and their willing partners in city hall.
Excerpt from “The King of Skid Row: John Bacich and the Twilight Years of Old Minneapolis” by James Eli Shiffer appears courtesy of the University of Minnesota Press. Copyright 2016 James Eli Shiffer, a Star Tribune editor. All rights reserved.